Carter’s fame and eventual vindication manage to obscure his greatness as a man
by Donny Mahoney
In 1974, my mother left her home in Galway and moved to Rahway, New Jersey, a town about 20 miles from New York, with a group of Irish nurses. At the time, the town’s most famous resident lived in the maximum security prison on the outskirts of the town overlooking Highway 1&9. His name was Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter. He was wrongly convicted of killing three white men in a New Jersey bar.
Carter died a free man on Sunday, of prostate cancer. He was released, of course, back in 1985, after serving almost 20 years in prison. His innocence was celebrated by Bob Dylan. Denzel Washington portrayed him in film. But, oddly, his fame and eventual vindication manage to obscure both his greatness as a man and the transformation that took place in Rahway’s solitary confinement cell, better known as ‘The Hole’.
“The kindest thing I can say I about my childhood is that I survived it,” Carter wrote in ‘The Sixteenth Round: From Number 1 Contender to Number 45472‘, the scathing autobiography and testimony of innocence that he wrote in Rahway prison. In the book, Carter describes his journey to prison via a professional boxing career and youth corrupted by institutional racism, poverty, reformatory schools and the US military.
He rose out of it to become a fearsome boxer with a gleaming bald head who’d lost his one title fight on a unanimous decision to middleweight world champion Joey Giardello in 1964.
Carter’s life would truly change, though, one late night in June 1966. He and friend John Artis were driving through the streets of Paterson, New Jersey when they were stopped by police. Two black men had been identified by witnesses leaving the scene of a shooting at a nearby bar in a white car, and so began Carter and Artis’s sordid journey through the other side of the American dream, which would not end until 1985.
Because states in the America’s north-east fought against slavery in the US Civil War, and never instituted Jim Crow laws, there’s a general feeling among the middle classes of places like New Jersey of exemption from America’s twisted history of racism. But it was racism, both subtle and overt, as well as corruption, that allowed for Carter and Artis to be convicted twice of those 1966 murders .
But where prison would break most men, Carter turned every day of his incarceration into an opportunity to profess his innocence. He refused to wear the prison uniform, or give up his watch, ring or goatee. He struck fear in prison guards in the same way he intimidated opponents in the boxing ring, and in his quiet moments, began to channel his rage into his autobiography. Because of ‘The Sixteenth Round’, his cause spread, and with the help of activists, his conviction was eventually overturned.
Carter died an expat, in Toronto. He left America following his release and worked for the cause of the wrongly convicted. His spirit was unbreakable and he will live on as proof that truth can indeed overcome power.
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